In 1928 Edward Bernays wrote a book called Propaganda. He is considered by many to be the father of public relations. For him, good PR was not as much about selling stuff, but rather setting up circumstances where things would sell themselves. Instead of selling a piano by putting ads in the newspaper, Bernays convinced the reporters at the time to write about a hot new trend.
The most interesting part is this trend had been completely manufactured by him: “Sophisticated people were putting aside a special room in the home for playing music. Once a person had a music room, Bernays believed, he would naturally think of buying a piano. As Bernays wrote, “It will come to him as his own idea.”1
This is essentially what we do. We are part of creating an experience. We are manufacturing something that wasn’t there before. Sure usability is important. Yes, it needs to be designed well. Of course, it should function without a glitch. But, are those really what sell the experience? There’s something more intangible that drives people to products: The desire to use it.
Charlie and the Apple Factory
There’s a spoof animation going around about Apple that portrays Apple’s Steve Jobs as the Willy Wonka character from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Gene Wilder). The spoof actually offers some interesting insight about desirability in products.
In the animation everyone wants to know what makes Apple’s products so special. Finally, the boy (Charlie), is led to a room that holds the secret of why people love Apple products. The room is completely empty. The Steve Jobs character divulges that it there isn’t anything special about their products except that they convinced people to believe they come from a “magical place.”
“It [Zune] plays music just like an iPod! Why don’t people get this? I don’t know why people want this one chunk of plastic over the chunk of plastic that I make?!” – Bill Gates character in Charlie and the Apple Factory
Why will people stand in line for hours for the newer version of the iPad, tomorrow when the original only came out around this time last year? Is it because it has cameras now? Is it because it is a little faster? No, and no. It’s easy to compare tablets on specifications like speed and resolution. It’s very difficult to compare on something intangible, like desirability.
It is hard to say what truly makes something desirable because the answer is: It depends. Some companies have gone as far as to hire ethnographers to study and observe customers for months (even years) to help them understand what their desires are by understanding their lives and motivations: “[...] closely observing people where they live and work allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires.”2
Angry Birds became a smash hit, where other similar games had not seen anything close to that success. Some claim this explosive popularity of Angry Birds can be explained, but if someone was to follow this formula they’d miss out on that magic of the original. There are other factors like timing/trends and the getting the attention of your audience. You can follow the rules and build a great product, but it might miss out on something else.
As designers we aim to orchestrate the right environment for that desirability to happen. If it’s usable and beautifully designed there will be at least a good foundation to help in allowing that seed of emotion to grow. In most cases people don’t want to be told (from the company) an app, service or product is great. They want to be the ones to discover it and share that with their friends. Like Edward Bernays knew many years ago, create the right environment for desire and the products will sell themselves.
Creating a desirable application or product can only happen when it is — at it’s core — something meaningful. It has to be something that improves people’s lives or just makes them happy for much longer than the five minute high after their purchase. Meaning also comes through telling a compelling story or building a brand over years that resonates with us on a much deeper level.
There’s always something or someone that does it a little better. This is especially true with technology. The technology will get to a point where it’s enough for the user, and anything else is excess. Focusing on the customer experience with a goal of desirability is the difference between creating fans and true fans (fanatics).
1. How to brand a disease — and sell a cure – Carl Elliott on CNN
2. The Science of Desire – Bloomberg Businessweek